The rest of Dallas ignored Oak Cliff for decades, and that’s part of what makes it unique. No one built McMansions here in the 2000s. There aren’t (yet) any glass-covered condo high-rises or synthetic stucco-covered apartment mazes.
It’s not a perfect neighborhood, but it comes close: The century-old prairie four-squares of Winnetka Heights and the classic manses of Kessler Park. The old-growth trees, the hilly topography and the straightforward street grid add to the mystique.
Besides that, we’re both a part of and apart from Dallas. We fiercely support our favorite small businesses and party on each other’s porches.
Not to mention Jefferson Boulevard.
Even after the Bishop Arts District became a destination for everyone from Frisco to Ferris, Jefferson quietly carried on for another full decade. Now the boulevard is gaining attention from developers and investors.
Jefferson is a hive of small business activity, and it’s a cultural center. It has that irresistible vibe that’s hard to explain.
There’s no other place like it in Dallas. And its future could be at risk.
The historic Texas Theatre on Jefferson Boulevard might’ve been a pawnshop.
“It would either be a pawnshop or a church, that’s who was looking at it,” says Monte Anderson, who listed the property for sale about 17 years ago.
Instead, he sold it to the Oak Cliff Foundation, a nonprofit that received a $1.6 million grant from the City of Dallas with hopes of restoring the theater. About nine years later, a group of local filmmakers, Aviation Cinemas, took over operations. Since then it has blossomed into the hub of the Oak Cliff Film Festival and become a cultural destination.
That’s an example of neighbors coming together with the city to preserve a building that was valued beyond its price-per-square-foot.
It was a great start, but more preservation is needed on Jefferson, advocates say.
Jefferson should be preserved not just for its buildings but for its form, Anderson says.
“It’s the best urban street in Dallas,” he says. “It’s got head-in parking, wide sidewalks” and all the things that make for great city streets.
Preservationists are aware that Jefferson could be in danger of losing some of its history. Rezoning in 2014 allowed for buildings as high as 20 stories on some parts of the boulevard. A few buildings are protected from demolition, but by and large, when old buildings are sold off, they could be replaced with new mixed-use buildings between three and 20 stories.
Parking restrictions are a hindrance to widespread redevelopment of Jefferson. There are zero parking requirements for old buildings, but buildings constructed after 1989 are required to have parking to satisfy city ordinances. For example, restaurants must have one space for every 100 square feet, and apartments must have one parking space per bedroom.
“There are a lot of great little buildings that might not be individually significant, but when you put them as part of a whole … we’d hate to see these one- and two-story being torn down for a parking lot,” says David Preziosi of Preservation Dallas.
There are some old buildings that might not be missed, but a building survey would help put into perspective which ones have architectural significance.
“It’s amazing how much of the original building fabric is still in place, even on those that have been painted or re-skinned in places,” says Robert Meckfessel, an architect who serves on the city’s Preservation Solutions Committee.
A recent conservation tour of the boulevard found there are unique signs that ought to be preserved. The Charco-Broiler steer, the Ravens Pharmacy raven and the Googie-style sign over Famsa furniture store are among them.
The boulevard has two periods of development. Those eye-catching signs are from the mid-20th century, when retail hit a zenith in Oak Cliff. There also are structures built in the 1920s and ’30s.
The Texas Theatre is from that earlier period, along with the Jefferson Tower.
Real estate developer Jim Lake Cos. took an already successful office tower on Jefferson and turned it into a budding community.
Lake added apartments and renovated long-vacant ground-floor spaces, which drew new restaurants, a coffee shop, a brewpub and a boutique tattoo shop, while keeping longtime businesses such as Gonzalez Restaurant and Ramon’s Barbershop in the mix.
Lake took the extra step of “activating” the rear of the building, creating patios and outdoor dining areas that face the alley. Using the real estate behind the buildings on both sides of the boulevard is part of the vision Lake and others have for Jefferson.
Silka Sanchez, whose family owns El Ranchito and La Calle Doce, grew up around Jefferson Boulevard, wandering around the “Mexican main street” and shopping in the thrift stores that used to be there.
“It’s funny because I never really gave Jefferson Tower much thought,” she says. “It’s like I never really noticed it.”
Since Lake took over, Sanchez launched a business in the tower, running its event space. They rent it for weddings, quinceañeras and other parties.
Even though it’s obvious Jefferson is changing, Sanchez says she hopes it retains some of the same energy it’s had for the past 30 or 40 years.
“It’s exciting what’s happening,” she says. “I just don’t want it to change completely.”
Historic preservation could contribute to that.
It’s possible to “stitch together” a national historic district for Jefferson, says Landmark Commission member Michael Amonett. That would make some building owners eligible for property tax breaks. Many individual buildings would be eligible for the National Register of Historic Places and could receive tax breaks for architectural restoration.
Another possibility would be to create a conservation district, similar to the one that protects the core of the Bishop Arts District, but it could be difficult to reach agreement among property owners, Preziosi says.
Preservationists also note that surrounding streets, including Centre and Twelfth, have nice old commercial buildings themselves and, in some places, good urban form.
Almost important as protecting buildings is preserving that city feel. Preserving urban form is a hot topic with the city’s new preservation task force, Meckfessel says. That includes looking at characteristics such as locations and heights of block faces, street grids and block sizes, none of which are explicitly protected under current city ordinances.
“In addition to the merits of the individual buildings, Jefferson Boulevard itself is probably the best example of an extant shopping street in Dallas, with many entire block faces more-or-less intact,” he says. “Compare this to Deep Ellum or McKinney or even Davis, where so much of the original fabric has been demolished over the years, often to create parking lots.”
Jefferson can eclipse Bishop Arts or any other area in Dallas, as long as we don’t mess it up, says Anderson.
“It will be bigger than Bishop Arts,” he says. “It will be the best street we have in all of southern Dallas, for sure.”
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